Suddenly flames erupted. A young man – a well-educated vegetable salesman – in Tunisia set himself on fire in despair over his living conditions and in protest against an oppressive regime. This was the spark that ignited several fires in North Africa and the Middle East and inspired fearless dissatisfaction. Large demonstrations and popular anger have met with one regime after another. First with the jasmine revolution in Tunisia, then in Egypt, Yemen, Jordan and several other countries. The rulers have overnight thrown away their fears and challenged the rulers.
- Why are the uprisings happening right now?
- What is the background to the uprisings?
- How does the West react?
- In what direction will the changes go?
In Tunisia, the regime was overthrown. In Egypt, President Mubarak has had to resign, and changes are under way. In other countries, too, regimes in retreat have apparently become more responsive to their own people. The people’s hope is more work, measures against corruption and more democracy. And all this is happening in the part of the world that has 2/3 of the oil reserves and almost half of the gas reserves.
2: Background to the uprising
The Middle East and North Africa have long been characterized by high population growth (over 2% per year) and very young populations (median age of 20 years + -). The labor market is also unable to accommodate all those who flock to and want work. Many of these young people are also well educated.
Young, well-educated people without a job are not a lucky combination, neither for the individual nor for society. It often acts as a ticking bomb under the rulers. In addition, when these young people quickly mobilize using modern means of communication such as the internet, mobile phone, video, facebook, satellite TV (Al-Jazeera), etc., they easily become a social and political explosive force for regimes that are unable to deliver.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the economy of many Arab countries stagnated. However, for several years in the 2000s, the region has experienced fairly high economic growth, often over 4 percent annually, as in Egypt. But growth has been poorly distributed . Both the political and the economic elite have almost given the go-ahead for those in power. On top of this, food prices have risen sharply and further contributed to a feeling of poorer living conditions . 40 percent of Egypt’s population lives on $ 2 a day or less. Great distress is therefore visible on many teams.
60 percent of the population in Arab countries is under 25 years of age. In this lies a wave of youth with demands for many more educational places and jobs – a major challenge for any Arab regime. There is also strong and unequivocal dissatisfaction among the leaders with leaders who only give half-hearted support to the Palestinian cause. The fact that the government in many Arab countries is characterized by corruption, oppression and misrule, obviously contributes to the dissatisfaction of the people.
Egypt has lived in a state of emergency since 1981 when Mubarak came to power after his predecessor Sadat was assassinated in an assassination attempt. Under the auspices of the state of emergency, the president can, among other things, set aside civil law and instead make use of military courts. Mubarak has a formidable security apparatus at its disposal.
In Egypt, 1.7 million people worked under the Ministry of the Interior in 2009. 850,000 were police officers and ministry employees, 450,000 in the security police and 400,000 in the secret police. This is the most hated part of the regime, and in many other Arab countries the situation is more similar than different. In part, this is a repression apparatus that has been inflated with Western economic support.
3: What do they want? Islamism – modernism
The opposition in both Egypt and other Arab countries is a motley assembly, composed as it is by liberals, Islamists, socialists and many others. The emphases – and they vary from country to country – are many in the span between
- demands for democracy(freedom of the press and expression, free elections, multi-party system…) and
- demands for better material conditions.
Yes, even within the large camp of Islamists, there are great variations. Some are more secular, modern and pragmatically oriented and want to distinguish between state and religion, others do not. The latter want sharia law integrated into state law – that is, an Islamic state. The Muslim Brotherhood is by far the strongest and best organized opposition force both in Egypt and in several other Arab countries. But is even far from any uniform size. This complexity of the opposition knew former President Mubarak to play on when he long said that resigning now would lead to chaos in the country.
Demonstrators both in Tahrir Square in Cairo and in other Egyptian cities have nevertheless agreed on the following demands :
- President Hosni Mubarak must step down
- The National Assembly must be dissolved (and new elections called)
- The state of emergency must be revoked
- A transitional government must be formed
- The constitution must be changed
- Fair and open legal proceedings must be introduced
Several of these demands the new military government has already said they will meet. With that, they can help maintain the trust they have in the people.
At the head of the Mubarak regime, the Egyptian government negotiated with former Vice President Suleiman at the helm with representatives of the opposition – including members of the banned Brotherhood. The big question then – after the military has taken over the government – seems to be whether the Egyptians can bring about an orderly transition to a more democratic government as well as necessary political and economic reforms.
Or will there be a power vacuum and chaos that the military, Islamists or others will take advantage of? For a long time, the powerful military seemed seemingly balanced and friendly (it is a conscription army ) to the protesters. Nevertheless, they imprisoned hundreds of opposition figures outside the cameras, suggesting that the military is not just wearing silk gloves. When everyday life reappears, it is also an open question whether the Egyptian economy can live up to all the expectations that have been created.
4: Communication in two directions
Tunisia took the lead and showed the way. A brutal apparatus of repression failed to contain dissatisfied crowds, and the president had to flee. Egyptians – no less dissatisfied – discovered that hated mechanisms of repression were possible to get past. Through courageous, steadfast and disciplined conduct, they have for weeks demonstrated strength and inspired others in the Arab world to opposition. Hundreds were killed during the uprising.
The protesters have also been wise. They have communicated their demands to their own leaders , but to a large extent also to Western leaders and public opinion . Demands for respect for human rights, the struggle for democracy and free, democratic elections – preferably with English text on posters – are gaining ground in the Western media and public opinion. By gaining sympathy and support from outside, they can more easily win the battle against their own oppressive and corrupt elites. But they are clear that it is the Egyptians and only those who will ultimately decide.
Western leaders can not say no to supporting demands and ideals that they themselves try to promote towards, for example, Burma, Russia, China, Iran and other countries. The same leaders know very well that Arab leaders can hardly be said to be democratic. At best, they have been autocrats, at worst dictators. For the West, led by the United States, it has nevertheless been best for its own, national energy interests to nurture and support autocrats who contributed to stability in the region, rather than supporting an opposition with significant, perhaps leading, elements of Islamists.
How consistent are the Western countries in their reactions to what is now going on in the Middle East? On the one hand, Western media and leaders have dramatized events and focused on violence. Warning voices have expressed fears that the uprising will go off track and develop into a chaos where Islamists will take power and develop a regime à la Iran. At the same time, we also see expressions of support for the demonstrators and recommendations to the governing body – governments, presidents and the power apparatus – to step down, listen to the demands, change style, proceed cautiously, etc.
5: Brohead Imperialism and Dilemma
With a few exceptions, Arab regimes have often served as bridgeheads in the American Empire . At many crossroads, management has been more loyal to and responsive to Washington than to its own people. In the Western world, bridgehead imperialism has been as neglected and ignored as censorship and police state methods in many Arab partner countries. Then it has apparently come as a surprise to most that the beautiful tourist country of Egypt turned out to be so full of oppression. But bridgehead imperialism and oppression are two sides of the same coin.
Developments put the United States in a fundamental dilemma. On the one hand, we see the Declaration of Independence and the image of the country as a “shining city on the hill” (the United States as a shining example for all the countries of the world). This is not only an American ideal, but has also become part of the common heritage of all mankind. On the other hand, we see the political and economic interests in the United States that for 50 years have been based on regimes that deny these values. “American democracy presupposes that democracy in the rest of the world is suppressed.” (Goldfarb, New York Times, 2002). Now, in Arab countries, there is a gap between management and people that is so large that it is hardly possible to play on both.
6: Domino effect?
Already the fact that the uprising in Tunisia inspired uprisings and protests against the regime in Egypt may indicate an incipient domino effect in the Middle East. We have also seen opposition to protests and widespread demonstrations in other Arab countries: Jordan, Yemen, Syria, Algeria, Sudan and Mauritania. Mubarak has resigned in Egypt, and Saleh in Yemen has announced that he will resign within months. In Jordan, the prime minister has been replaced by a clear order to the new one on political reforms. Does this mean that the Arab peoples have started a rally to overthrow the dictators?
When former President Mubarak – at least formally – could sit in power for several weeks after the uprising began, it could be interpreted as an ominous sign for the protesters. After the initial unrest, it could seem as if the regime had calmed down to catch its breath and regroup with just a few cosmetic changes in leadership. When Mubarak announced on February 10 that he would continue as head of state, it caused enormous outrage. And the protesters mobilized large crowds across the country. They knew their history where rebellion has lost momentum and strength before anything special is achieved. Much now depends on the opposition being able to keep up the pressure on the military government also in the time to come.
An old saying goes that what happens in Egypt is not limited to Egypt. The country is a key country in the Middle East. It has been historical – one of the first high civilizations – and it is to this day. Egypt was the hearth of both Arab nationalism and pan-Arabism after the fall of colonial rule and of the organized Muslim movement (The Muslim Brotherhood). In addition, one of the world’s most important transport routes – the Suez Canal – is located in Egyptian territory.
We can ask: Will there be real, profound reforms and system changes or will old regimes survive only by adapting to new conditions on the surface?
7: Where does it carry?
In the Tunisia of the Jasmine Revolution, there is now a transitional government led by Mohamed Gannouchi. In this we find representatives from different parts of the opposition. New elections have been held and political prisoners have been released. Processes are underway even though many of the old elite are still in key positions.
In Egypt, several people have been mentioned as possible transition leaders until new elections (according to the plan in September) can provide a more lasting leadership. Among them are Amr Moussa, head of the Arab League , and former head of the International Energy Agency (IAEA) Mohamed ElBaradei. These are liberal figures who can gain support in many camps to bring about a fairly orderly change of power. In the long run, however, there are other and hitherto more unknown people who will occupy the leadership positions in what has hitherto been called the leaderless revolution.
In the media, we can glimpse three main positions in the question of which direction the uprising in Egypt will take. We find the positions condensed in the country names Burma, Iran, Turkey.
- Burma:The military took power in Egypt on 11 February. In this sense, the conditions are much as we see them in today’s Burma. Egypt has a military tradition at the top of the pyramid of power; all presidents since 1954 have come from the ranks of the military: Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak. For the West, it can be a very difficult dilemma whether they can accept a military government in Egypt, but not in Burma. But a military government in Egypt can hardly ignore the currents in the people that have come to the surface in recent weeks. The Egyptian army also has a lot of trust in the population. It has already met several of the protesters’ demands and said it will hold democratic elections and contribute to the necessary preparations for such.
- Iran:A regime of fundamentalist, undemocratic Islamists who want sharia law as the basis of the state. Seen with most western eyes, this is often the least pleasant option.
- Turkey:A government similar to the current Turkish government with the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in power under Prime Minister Erdogan. Here a distinction is made between state and religion . Islam functions there more as a superstructure for the government, not entirely unlike the role of Christianity for Christian democratic parties, as we find them in several European countries, including Germany.
In any case, it is clear that the Islamic influence in the Arab street is significant everywhere. If this is moderated by secular forces and the distancing from the unification in Shia Muslim Iran, Turkey can be a valuable example. In Tunisia, Rachid Gannouchi has already pointed to Turkey as a model and distanced itself from sharia law.
8: International ripple effects
It is expected that a more democratic Egypt – and more democracy in Arab countries – will dance less to American or Western pipe. Democracy as we know it can hardly be introduced overnight. Things take time, not least when it comes to introducing democracy. However, we can imagine that Israel will have a sharper neighborhood. A new and more democratic Egyptian regime will have to be more responsive to pro-Palestinian sentiments among the people.
According to themakeupexplorer, the Israeli-Egyptian peace has always been a cold peace. In Egypt, professional associations of lawyers, engineers, doctors, etc. have rejected normalization with Israel as a condition of membership. Egypt is unlikely to terminate the peace deal with Israel, but Mubarak’s complicity in the siege of Gaza could fall. Israel also gets 40 percent of its natural gas from Egypt. That delivery can also be reconsidered.
Given the very close relationship between the United States and Israel, the Americans will most likely seek to slow down a development as outlined above. They can, for example, signal the withdrawal of NOK 9 billion in annual military support. The country has then also wavered between calling for more democracy and warning against chaos. The Israelis, for their part, have hoisted flags, and ironically supported “the only democracy in the Middle East” autocrat Mubarak until he had to withdraw. The great fear is that the Brotherhood will have a dominant influence. They seek to avoid this at virtually any cost.